For cinema owners, 2020 was clearly a watershed year, with many wondering about the long-term future of moviegoing. So a Nov. 2, 1953, guest column by Walt Disney, “The Crucial Year for Pictures,” is a reminder that theaters have survived other crises, and presumably will again.
“The motion picture industry stands once more on the verge of a new era,” wrote Disney, adding that it was “a crucial time, certainly, but one of many it has survived with little impairment of its progress or its health. And certainly without occasion for alarm or defeatism.”
He referred to it as a time of “growing pains which must come periodically to every vital institution which deals with masses of people.” But in the entire column, he never mentioned the source of anxiety: television. In 1950, only 20% of American homes had a TV set. Only two years later, in July 1952, Variety reported that one out of three U.S. homes owned a TV set. By the end of the decade, TV sets were in 90% of U.S. homes.
No one could ignore the revolution that was happening. But as Disney wrote, the entertainment industry “calls for constant adaptation and adventures in showmanship. … Ours has long been a chance-taking business.”
Disney, always looking for a clever opportunity to promote his product, wrote in Variety about his studio’s new methods to enhance moviegoing, such as CinemaScope (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Lady and the Tramp”), stereophonic sound (expanding on the system first used in the 1941 “Fantasia”) and filming in exotic places (“Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue,” “The Alaskan Eskimo”).
“But this doesn’t mean timidity in planning and operation,” he wrote. “That’s why we are diversifying instead of carrying the whole load in one basket.” Disney didn’t mention the studio’s planned entry into television. But less than a year after his Variety column, the weekly series “Walt Disney’s Disneyland” debuted, and the five-days-a-week “The Mickey Mouse Club” bowed in 1955. Maybe that’s what he meant by “diversifying.”
On Sept. 21, 1955, Variety wrote, “Walt Disney and ‘Disneyland’s’ effect on the television industry has been incalculable.” Disney almost single-handedly put ABC on the map as a network to be reckoned with, the article said. While ABC’s ad sales amounted to $17.6 million in 1952, the network earned nearly that amount ($15 million) from just “The Mickey Mouse Club” three years later.
Disney created “Davy Crockett,” serialized on “Disneyland,” and the Fess Parker character entered the public consciousness “with a speed and impact that’s never been seen before,” Variety wrote. Disney also opened the door for other studios to start producing for television, with Warner Bros., MGM and Fox quickly following.
TV proved a phenomenal marketing tool for Disney, plugging the studio’s movies and Anaheim, Calif., theme park, Disneyland, which opened in 1955. And, of course, there was merchandise.
After seeing a preview of “Mickey Mouse Club” in October 1955, Variety’s Army Archerd wrote, “If you think the Davy Crockett [coonskin caps] fad was something, wait until you see the country’s kids wearing Mouseketeer caps! One factory is already 1 million orders behind.”
In 1953, Disney wrote that movies were “the greatest of all entertainments,” but soon after that, TV proved a cornerstone to the studio. (Disney bought ABC in 1995 in a $19 billion merger.)
However, the Disney conglomerate’s love of TV doesn’t negate anything Walt Disney wrote. Movies remain important to the studio, as the purchases of Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Fox have helped prove.
Though naysayers in the early 1950s predicted the death of moviegoing, it didn’t happen. So presumably it will survive the COVID era. As Disney concluded in his column, “We like to enjoy ourselves in crowds, at sports arenas, at picnics, fairs and carnivals, at concerts and in the theatre. … People are always going to demand and enjoy movies in the theatre. Perhaps not as exclusively as they did when public amusements were more limited. But with a big potential share” of people’s entertainment budgets, “we must compete as never before.”